The curious addiction of books

Reading fiction makes you a better person - more understanding, less fatuous and nicer
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"ONE. TWO." The sound man looked at us over the microphone with amused contempt. Book readers. Listening to stories, read by performers who had no idea that you had to yell into a microphone, Joe Cocker-style. One. Two. Now could we hear him? We looked back, abashed. He strutted off.

It was an odd moment during an odd, but finally triumphant, evening. We had gathered in a south London town hall to hear five authors read the work of Raymond Carver, the American genius who died of cancer 10 years ago. There was a problem with the sound. When Julian Barnes read, we sat politely, watching him enact the part of a man reading a story but hearing only fragments, like a conversation through a wall.

The sound man had his moment, marginally improving things. But by the end of the evening, when Graham Swift read from Carver's last poems, the problems had been forgotten; writers, readers, even the publisher, were united by a sense of gratitude for the battered, heroic life that had produced such astonishing work. It was moving, but not full of the cheap tears beloved of politicians and confession shows.

Few of the good and worthy figures who have stepped forward to support the National Year of Reading have made this simple and obvious point: that reading books, particularly works of the imagination, is not merely a question of improving literacy, helping you land a job, and providing an escape from whiffy fellow-commuters on a train. Reading fiction makes you a better person - more understanding, less fatuous and trivial; nicer. It may even make you more virtuous.

One of the best recent accounts of the humanising effects of reading is to be found, astonishingly enough, in Julie Burchill's recent memoir, I Knew I Was Right. It's a tetchy, bitchy, unhappy and ungenerous sort of book but, briefly, between trashing those she grew up with as a child and trashing those she worked or went to bed with as an adult, Burchill writes movingly and funnily of her childhood love affair with books, and of the world they opened up for her.

So what went wrong? If books are so morally improving, how did she end up as this hectoring, pound-a-word enragee? An answer was provided by Burchill herself in a column, written a few months after publication, in which she explained that she had kicked the reading habit and emerged from Book Hell. "I don't read books these days," she wrote. "After a certain age, you feel you should be writing books, not reading them."

It was a sad piece because, behind the bullying columnist, one could just faintly descry the younger, more interesting and bookish Burchill. She had given up reading, and the terrible effect on her character and prose was there for all to see in her own writing.

As it happens, there are retreats for those still happily in Book Hell. At Bloom Reading Holidays, a group of readers and two writers meet in a hotel in Scotland to discuss their favourite books.

The format may resemble a recovery programme - "My name is Janet and I have a serious Edith Wharton habit" - and certainly, the addiction is total. Some readers have revealed that they are unable to enter a lift without having a book to read. Others have a spare volume in the car, just in case they are caught in a traffic jam. The range of reading is wide and unpredictable, from Michener to Marquez, from E Annie Proulx to CP Snow, reflecting true taste rather than simply reflecting the literary fashion of the moment.

Under normal circumstances, the effect of putting together in a room a group of strangers of differing ages, backgrounds and views would be a recipe for discord and competitiveness, or at least boredom. Not here. There's something about the habit of entering imagined worlds, whether in literary or popular fiction, that takes the edge off people and makes them more interesting and more curious about the experience of others.

There will be those who won't see this at all. In Literacy is Not Enough, published this week by the Book Trust, Doris Lessing points out that the combination of a TV culture and a utilitarian, fact-based education has spawned a generation of "educated barbarians": people who have passed all the right exams, but who read nothing, and therefore they lack a "hinterland of knowledge, information and reference".

Personally, I would go further and argue that the small, good thing that is fiction and poetry is spiritually and emotionally enriching. And that the work of a writer like Raymond Carver does more for the moral health of the world than the words of any religious leader.